Tapping into the power of a B2B sleep management digital solution that increases organizational efficiency and improves individual well-being – Interview with Dr. Els van der Helm, Co-founder of Shleep

B2B sleep management digital solutions are entering the corporate world with the aim to improve individual well-being, thus organizational efficiency and efficacy. For an average Fortune 500 company, the increased cost due to sleep deprivation is estimated at $80M/year. Sleep is no longer just a basic personal need for a better health and good quality of life. Together with Dr. Els van der Helm, Co-Founder of Shleep, we explored the effects of sleep deprivation on our health (mental, physical & cognitive impairment), the huge market potential and their business model.

Digital health sleep management for B2B segment is a growing market. Ever increasing stress levels, lifestyle behaviors and negative environmental factors affect our health, ability to think and perform at our best. Consequences of poor sleep are associated with health issues like depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Global rise of these chronic conditions offers a huge market potential. Digital health startups and tech giants have disrupted the healthcare market by introducing wearables, tracking sensors, and connected digital health apps that continuously monitor health, stress and activities to empower individuals almost effortlessly. Sleep disorders are no longer looked at as a personal matter and a health issue, that ends once one leaves home. Mental capacities affected by sleep, like lack of creativity, poor decision-making, inability to concentrate hurt individual performance at work and increase operational costs.

We had a chance to talk to Dr. Els van der Helm, Co-Founder of Shleep, a leader in B2B sleep coaching technology, about the importance of sleep on our health, how lack of sleep hurts business, what are the best strategies for getting enough sleep and what sets Shleep apart from other market players.

Enjoy the interview.

Research2Guidance: As a short introduction, could you please share Shleep’s story and what were the reasons behind creating this digital multichannel coaching platform?
Dr. Els van der Helm: Shleep was founded in 2016 with the mission to help the world sleep better, but my adventure with sleep started in high school when I read a book on sleep and its impact on health by Prof. William Dement, a leading authority on sleep. I was hooked – I spent over a decade in sleep academia at Berkeley and Harvard. I was interested in sleep and its impact on our brain, on performance, but also looking at sleep from a more clinical viewpoint – what are the most common sleep disorders and the evidence-based treatments for them.

Later, I moved to the corporate world and worked for McKinsey & Co. A new world opened to me in terms of business, strategies, teamwork and performance, and employees’ trainings and benefits. Here I am, in a consulting environment, where there is more stress and pressure to perform consistently, yet the topic of sleep never came up. It didn’t make sense to me – I knew that sleep deprivation is a widespread worldwide health problem, but we are doing nothing to support and help employees to feel and perform better.

Shleep was thus born out of my passion and desire to educate the business space on the importance of sleep and to offer a real solution / service to tackle it. Together with my co-founder, Jöran Albers, we focused on how we can 1) change sleep within companies, 2) change culture and 3) change the individual’s behavior. The result is a digital solution (an app and a platform) that helps people be healthier, more energetic and productive at work, resulting in a better quality of life.

Research2Guidance: It is an interesting challenge to tackle. Sleep is kind of part of our lives, yet it is not always on our priority list. Looking into the business part – What is your business model and what was your market entry strategy?
Dr. Els van der Helm: In a nutshell, our business model is B2B – employers pay subscription fees for their employees to have access to our digital platform. The end user is the professional who experiences high level of stress and who might or might not, be aware of his/her sleeping problems.

Our research team, with many years of academic sleep research experience and business experience, knows the cost of sleep to the individual and the company. 35% of people sleep 6 hours or less (keep in mind that the majority needs between 7-9 hours of sleep). Furthermore, 48% of people complain about their quality of sleep (falling asleep, waking up too early). If you look at an individual level, sleep deprivation is bad for our health. It affects our mental health, physical health and performance; there is almost no disease that is not linked to sleep.

And if we focus on what this means for a company, it affects productivity, innovation and creativity. For an average Fortune 500 company, the increased cost due to sleep deprivation is estimated at $80M/year.

At the beginning, our market entry strategy was to focus on consulting firms. My co-founder and I come from the consulting management space and we knew sleep is a real challenge for most. On one hand you have an atmosphere where everyone is working long hours and on the other, there are these attitudes around sleep that it is kind of a waste of time or “I have no problem when it comes to sleep, I put my head on the pillow and I’m gone” even though falling asleep within 2-3 minutes is a clear sign of sleep deprivation. It was good for us to start with such a challenging, fast-paced and client-facing environment. Today, we have ventured into other industries. Some of our clients are Accenture, Deloitte, Takeda, Swiss Re, Nivea, ZEISS and Spotify.

Research2Guidance: I see. Can you elaborate a bit more on your digital solution and service offering?
Dr. Els van der Helm: Our solution is a digital multichannel coaching platform that surrounds users with the tools and support they need to change their behavior and create long-term healthy sleep habits. When developing the app we put the user experience first – it is easy to access, navigate and retrieve information.

To start, the user simply has to download the app [available on iOS and Android], enter their applicable company code and take 3 minutes to fill out a sleep assessment. Based on the assessment, the app will provide small, manageable daily exercises for him/her aimed at optimizing sleep behavior. The app als offers the option to ask a question to a sleep expert, has a relaxation library and allows you to minimize jet lag with our jet lag planner. Finally, the user can input his/her sleep data to track and measure progress.

We use a combination of different approaches: We offer clients an app along with a coaching service and provide a variety of tools to help someone achieve good quality sleep.

For example, a person might set up their alarm multiple times in the morning, which is not good for sleep quality or waking up feeling rejuvenated. Our coaches will suggest specific exercises to help change this habit. We might focus on one’s evening routine to make sure that it becomes more predictable. In this case the preparation for bedtime and sleep can start a bit earlier with dimming the lights or playing a relaxation melody so the brain can get the signal that is time to relax, thus one can get a better-quality sleep.

Other tools that can help with relaxation to reduce stress include breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, relaxing music, etc. There is even a tool that helps users who travel often deal with jetlag. Lastly, there is a hotline to a sleep expert whom users can direct questions to.

We acknowledge that everyone is unique and sleep will probably remain a challenge at different times for different reasons – some people might prefer/need different ways to learn how to change their behavior and acquire a new habit. We want to be there for everyone and offer as many personalized experiences as possible and a holistic approach to sleep loss / deprivation. We engage with our users through a monthly newsletter where we share useful and interesting articles, videos and product recommendations. We produce live webinars with sleep coaches where one can ask questions, produce podcasts, and if somebody wants more, a one-on-one conversation with a sleep expert is possible.

Research2Guidance: The name Shleep is playful and good one having in mind the purpose of your business.
Dr. Els van der Helm: Yes. Shleep is a combination of sheep and sleep. In many cultures, there is a saying to count the sheep before you fall asleep. In a way, it blends with our idea and mission – using science and humor to help the world sleep better.

Research2Guidance: Who are Shleep users? Can you share with us some personality types?
Dr. Els van der Helm: We see different personality types with unique characteristics. Our focus is not only on people who have sleep problems, like insomnia, but on people who have no idea that they have poor sleep.

The main users’ profiles are: 1) a person with insomnia, who is very aware of his problem and is very motivated to get help; 2) the non-prioritizer, who feels that not getting enough sleep, and/or quality sleep is part of life. For the non-prioitizer, we focus on awareness and how we can change their behavior. The 3rd big group we see are the optimizers. These are users who eat healthy, exercise, know about mindfulness (and have tried it), have not thought much about sleep, but are ready to optimize it.

Lastly, we have the sub-personas. These are the frequent travelers, the shift workers and the young parents. These are people who deal with specific external challenges. Also them, we provide with support and coaching.

Research2Guidance: How many coaches do you have?
Dr. Els van der Helm: All of our sleep experts have a PhD in the field of sleep and are experienced in behavioral change. It is important to us to provide quality services and give science-based advice.

We have several full-time sleep experts on our team, but we also have a pool of independent experts around the world to cater to the different time zones of our global clients. These are professors or professionals who are still in science or have their own clinical practice.

At present, our focus is not on helping our clients / users medically. We don’t provide multiple therapy sessions but will provide advice for people to seek help through their general practitioner. For instance, we might see that a person has insomnia. In this case, we will advise him on what he should ask his doctor, while also sharing the tools we have that can help him immediately. For example, he could use relaxation or he might attend the digital course on troubled sleeping and learn more about insomnia.

Research2Guidance: Do you partner with healthcare stakeholders, like HICs, doctors, etc.?
Dr. Els van der Helm: We haven’t partnered with health insurance companies or doctors yet, but there is a lot of potential and is something that we will explore.

We all visit a doctor’s office several times a year and often people complain of feeling tired, having low energy or feeling depressed or anxious. In such cases, one might not even think or realize that it might be due to lack of sleep. If doctors are, perhaps, aware of the impact sleep has on health, and the relationship between sleep and diseases, they can advise their patients to try Shleep to have a better quality of sleep. We see our solution as a value-add to a doctor’s service.

Research2Guidance: What countries are you concentrating on? Are your app and platform available only for English speaking users?
Dr. Els van der Helm: Everything is in English thus far, and this has helped us to develop faster. We are speaking to some parties to add different languages in the future. It is something that we are open to. However, it depends on the right time – when we have enough scale to justify adding another language.

Research2Guidance: What is your pricing strategy?
Dr. Els van der Helm: Clients pay a yearly subscription of €199 per participant for access to our digital coaching platform. Depending on the number of participants, we also offer interactive live sleep workshops where we create awareness, momentum and a case for change.

It is possible to create awareness and see users change their behavior in the short term, but it is our aim to work with our clients long-term because sleep is not something that can be fixed overnight. Impact can be seen after 4 or 8 weeks – which is great – but we also know that, just like with exercise or healthy nutrition, creating awareness is one thing, but creating long-lasting habits is another one. Crucially, we work closely with employers to create cultural change – how they can make sure that teams work in a different way to be more productive and perform better. This, of course, takes time so we encourage a collaboration of at least 2-3 years.

In one year, we ensure that awareness is not the only result. People will get continuous support in whatever they need at the present moment. Whether one is experiencing a lot of stress, suffering from insomnia, facing a lot of travel time, a young parent, or even pregnant and experiencing a new set of sleeping problems, Shleep will cater to them all.

I’m proud to say that employers see the difference in their companies. An employer can rely on their employees to perform better, be more innovative, have more energy and tackle different problems with ease. To give you some numbers to have a better picture: we have done more than 150 workshops and have run more than 40 comprehensive sleep programs. The results are clear: on average, employees are 21% more effective at work. Their sleep quantity is improved by 36%, there is 74% reduction in prevalence of insomnia, nearly 80% want to continue our sleep programs and 90% will recommend our workshops to a colleague / friend.

Research2Guidance: Currently how many active users do you have and what is your engagement strategy?
Dr. Els van der Helm: At present, Shleep has 150,000 active users. We use several channels to continue to engage with our users. We’ve realized that people have different ways of learning and different ways of interacting with an app / expert. Some prefer live contact – webinars or videos. Others like listening to podcasts, and some people hate emails. Shleep caters to all of these preferences.

We create personalized email campaigns based on the user and the type of personality to motivate him/her with the best tools to improve sleep. In our arsenal is the ability to take into account user specific data and push notifications via the app. For example, we can see from one’s sleeping data that it has been a rough week so we tailor our push messages to remind the user to get back on track with a specific exercise or mindfulness / relaxation technique to achieve good sleep, have more energy and deal with the stress better.

Other B2B players focus on a particular niche, like insomnia. We, on the other hand, deal with employers whose aim is to improve the sleep of as many employees as possible regardless of their particular issue.

Research2Guidance: What challenges are you facing?
Dr. Els van der Helm: As in any company in the B2B space, it can be a challenge to get to the decision-maker in the company and to get to him quickly. That said, sleep is climbing on the priority list on the corporate agenda and this trend is helping us to create an urgency for the B2B stakeholders.

Traditionally, management thinks about productivity, improving teamwork or the general well-being of their employees. They don’t really think that sleep could address their performance or teams’ problem. The very first focus frequently goes to a physical activity, like running a marathon together, organizing a steps challenge, or “hey, let’s look at what we have in our cafeteria. Is it healthy?” Others focus on mindfulness solutions before they get to sleep.

But science speaks, and it shows how fundamental sleep is. To give you an example: if someone sleeps just one hour shorter on average, he/she eats 140 calories more the next day and craves sugar more than fat and proteins! This results in one making different nutritional choices and not necessarily healthy ones. It might go even further – this person might start to show a prediabetic profile.

Helping employees around nutrition and wanting to motivate different choices can’t be related to food alone. When they are tired, they are not listening to that. Their body is giving them very different signals in terms of what choices they should make. Also, when people sleep less, they are less likely to exercise, they are more prone to injuries. It makes sense to start with sleep, because science shows that when you are well rested all other well-being solutions have much bigger impact. A holistic approach is needed. Rested people make better choices that have long-lasting benefits and are more productive. Improving people’s health should start with looking at their sleeping pattern and improving their sleep. The fact that sleep is so fundamental just started to show on the surface. It is not so known yet!

Research2Guidance: Do you see a global cultural difference in how corporates perceive your digital solution? Are people in the USA more open to your digital solution than in Europe?
Dr. Els van der Helm: In the USA, partially due to their health care system, it is more common for the employer to offer its employees solutions that directly impact their health. In the European landscape, however, your health is seen as your personal life.

Businesses in the USA and UK are ahead when it comes to providing their employees with health and well-being options. Nevertheless, the increased attention to sleep in media hasn’t reached the top-level management in a lot of companies yet. It is starting to change, and you see the most progressive companies jumping on the opportunity. I still think sleep market is tiny comparing to what is going to be in 5-10 years.

Research2Guidance: It is really an interesting market to be a pioneer and I agree with you that in a couple of years the market will be blooming with different players and solutions. In your opinion, what defines success of a digital health solution?
Dr. Els van der Helm: I think success is related to personalization – how the company uses personalized algorithms to ensure that every user feels that the solution is adjusted to him, and that the data he provides is used to help him directly. This is something that we at Shleep are focused on.

Secondly, a holistic approach and evidence-based data is part of the success, whether you focus on sleep, nutrition, or physical activities. Our platform uses different modalities and different channels to share our scientific evidence-based insights to tackle sleep problems. We have PhD professionals on our team because we know that sleep is a combination of medical field, psychology field, behavior change field and it is very important that we use latest science.

As sleep is becoming more and more popular, we see more products and approaches that are not grounded in science. It is key to us to make sure that whatever we advise our users is the best advice or approach that could be given to help them.

The third important thing is actual results. I believe that if we use science-based techniques and we focus on a user-centric approach, it leads to actual results. And we see that. We have an amazing impact on people’s lives – we reduce sleep debt by 60% (bearing in mind that there is a difference between how much sleep you need and how much sleep you are getting). People report a 40% increase in sleep quality, and this translates to other parts of their lives. For instance, they report a 21% higher productivity at work. So, I think any digital health solution should be able to answer, “Are we having an actual impact / do we make a difference to our users lives and are we using evidence-based techniques to get there?

Research2Guidance: What sets Shleep apart?
Dr. Els van der Helm: In the digital health space a lot of companies focus on people who are sick or in the case of sleep, one well-defined niche is people who have insomnia. But if you look at the market and the bigger picture, the large part of the population is being neglected when it comes to sleep – they are not even aware they have a problem, so they haven’t reached out for help.

One of our direct competitors in the sleep space is Sleepio. They have a great science-based approach, but they focus on the patient’s population who suffer from insomnia, who aware of their problem and are who very motivated to change that to get better.

What sets us apart is that we have a different approach and we want to help ALL people to sleep better. Besides people with insomnia, we focus on the larger part of the population who are often neglected. They represent a huge cost to employers and to health insurance companies – being sleep deprived, they get sick much easier and more often, they are much less productive at work than they could be. I don’t really see other players addressing such a large part of the population.

There are more and more sleep offerings but a lot of them are not properly science-based and not necessarily focused on measuring their impact. Given our team’s strong academic background I believe this will pave the path to success.

Research2Guidance: What is next for Shleep?
Dr. Els van der Helm: A major focus for us will be partnerships in both healthcare space and well-being space to hit the scale that we want to reach.

We see that our digital solution is mature enough – it can stand on its own and be employed in many different situations. However, we need other channels that allow us to reach bigger groups faster and partnerships are the way to do that. Whether with general insurance companies or healthcare insurance companies, doctors, well-being platforms that seat in between employers and insurance companies, Shleep is ready to step into that space and explore all the opportunities.

Research2Guidance: Dr. Els van der Helm, thank you very much for your thoughts and insights.

About Shleep
Shleep focuses on improving the performance of companies by improving the sleep of employees, teams and leaders through a digital sleep coaching platform. Users of its platform have access to a tailored exercises and courses, a sleep expert, relaxation and jet lag tools, individual and group sleep consultations and live webinars on topics such as how to cope with sleep deprivation, insomnia, jet lag and sleep in babies. Shleep supports clients in creating a cultural change around the topic of sleep and performance through the platform, an HR dashboard and a team-based program. Clients include top consultancies, tech companies and banks. Find out more about Shleep via http://www.shleep.com

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *